Image Description

Brine Well Information

The Permian Basin spanning southeast New Mexico and parts of Texas is internationally known for its reserves of crude oil and natural gas.  Overlying those valuable reserves are significant layers of salt left behind millions of years ago as an ancient ocean receded.  That salt benefits us not only via potash mining, but is also the material providing for the safe disposal of the nation’s defense-related transuranic waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.  When industry drills through the salt layers to extract the underlying oil and gas, their drilling fluids need to be pre-saturated with salt to ensure the integrity of the boring.  As such, a source of brine (salt-laden water) is required.  Brine is also used to mitigate existing downhole pressures due to its higher density during subsequent workover operations.

A brine well is a solution mining operation to remove salt.  Fresh water is introduced into the subsurface through a well casing, thereby dissolving the salt.  The brine is then pumped out and trucked to wellsites for beneficial use.  Historically, there are a total of 32 permitted brine well operations in New Mexico associated with oil and gas development.  The oldest of these wells date back to 1963.  At present, there remain nine active brine facilities.  This has been a relatively cost-effective means of producing brine though it can also be made directly at the point of use by mixing dry salt with water.

Oversight of brine wells by the Oil Conservation Division is accomplished under provisions of the federal Underground Injection Control program and the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission regulations.  Both these enforcement mechanisms are concerned with the protection of groundwater.

The solution mining of the salt results in an underground cavern.  The stability of these caverns is dependent upon their depth, their width, and the strength of the materials above the void.  Since July of 2008, three large sinkholes associated with brine wells in the Permian Basin have catastrophically developed; two in New Mexico, and one in Texas.  Both the sinkholes in New Mexico are at locations where the depth to the salt-bearing formation is less than 500 feet and more than five million barrels of brine were historically produced.

Within days of the first brine well collapse southeast of Artesia on July 16, 2008 division personnel became concerned about an oilfield trucking operation in Carlsbad which incorporated an active brine well of similar depth and production history.  This facility is located amidst two major roadways, a vital irrigation canal, a trailer park, a church, and a feed store.  On July 22, 2008 brine production from the remaining operational well was terminated at OCD’s direction and the well was eventually plugged.  The EMNRD Cabinet Secretary directed the division to evaluate all rules regarding brine wells, audit our records, inspect all wells, continue monitoring the first collapse, and work with other agencies to assess the on-going situation.

On November 3, 2008 the second brine cavern collapse occurred north of Loco Hills and a moratorium on new brine wells was put into effect.  On March 11, 2009 OCD recommended to the operator of the Carlsbad well that they consider shutting down remaining operations above their cavern and submit contingency planning for a possible collapse including discussions with their neighbors.  On March 26th and 27th of 2009, a gathering of regulators, technical experts, and industry was held to discuss overall brine well safety during which a consensus developed that the brine cavern in Carlsbad had a high probability for collapse.

Beginning in April of 2009, the division has briefed emergency response organizations, local government, the Departments of Transportation and the Environment, along with the public about the situation on numerous occasions.  OCD also contracted with a knowledgeable engineering firm to undertake characterization of the brine cavern and install an automated system to detect ground movement.  The early warning system became operational on June 23, 2009.  In August of 2009, a two-dimensional seismic reflection survey was completed to determine the lateral extents of the cavern.

A local working group was established in November of 2009 which continues to develop a means of mitigating a cavern collapse, refine and monitor the early warning system, and ensure a proper emergency response if the cavern were to fail in the interim.  Funding for the efforts to date has been a combination of state and local monies. A Carlsbad Brine Well Remediation Authority has since been created. Click below for more information:

The OCD continues to gather information regarding all brine wells and caverns in the state to assess the future risk of collapses from existing wells and the potential impacts.  The division is also moving forward in redefining the allowable criteria for the proper siting, construction, operation, and closure of brine making operations.

New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department | Copyright
1220 South St. Francis Drive | Santa Fe, NM 87505
Webmaster   |   EMNRD Legal Disclaimer